Two years later, four Atlantic City prostitute deaths unsolved

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File photo of three crosses not far from the area where four prostitutes were found slain Nov. 20, 2006. Molly Jean Dilts, Barbara Breidor, Tracy Ann Roberts, and Kim Raffo were killed. (AP)

ATLANTIC CITY - Two years after the bodies of four prostitutes were found dumped behind a seedy motel just outside this gambling resort, those who called them daughter, sister, wife, friend, or even mother would prefer not to recall the murders, which brought more heartbreak into their lives.

Authorities do not describe the crimes, commonly thought to be the work of a serial killer, as cold cases. A break can come out of the blue, criminologists say.

"We continue to expend both time and resources" pursuing the investigation, the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office said in a statement last Friday.

Despite a lack of closure, relatives of the victims say they're carrying on, or trying to. But they can't risk more sorrow by discussing the murders again.

"We really don't talk about it anymore. We just want to move on," said Miguel Santos of Pembroke Pines, Fla., whose wife, Maria, was the sister of Kim Raffo, the first victim found.

"Every time it's brought up again, it just makes it tough for her," Santos said.

Raffo's estranged husband, Hugh Auslander, said he thought of his wife often and had created a "mini-shrine" in her honor. He's reluctant to share his grief with others, however.

"I've been going through a healing process, but I know it's all just a test through God," Auslander said. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident was married to Raffo for 16 years.

Raffo, 35, was found Nov. 20, 2006, three days before Thanksgiving, facedown in a drainage ditch behind the Golden Key Motel in the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township.

Two women noticed her body while walking on the trash-strewn no-man's-land behind some motels on the Black Horse Pike near the eastbound Atlantic City Expressway. Though dressed, Raffo was shoeless. Her head was pointed east, toward Atlantic City's glittering skyline.

Within hours, police found the badly decayed bodies of three more women less than 100 yards away. The other victims, similarly positioned and all shoeless, were identified as Molly Jean Dilts, 20, Barbara Breidor, 42, and Tracy Ann Roberts, 23. Their bodies are believed to have been there for several weeks.

Forensics experts said Raffo and Roberts, whose bodies had been in the ditch the shortest time, had been strangled. The other corpses were too decomposed for a cause of death to be determined, though authorities believe foul play was involved.

Three of the women had a high level of drugs in their systems when they died, according to autopsy reports.

As the identifications were made, friends and relatives recounted the victims' life stories, how poor choices may have led them to addiction and prostitution.

The Prosecutor's Office has steadfastly declined to discuss leads, but at least two suspects have been discounted.

The most high-profile person of interest was Terry Oleson, a handyman who briefly lived and worked at the Golden Key. He was held for six months on unrelated charges while detectives investigated him in the murders.

Oleson was arrested in Salem County on charges that he had videotaped his girlfriend's 15-year-old daughter naked in the bathroom of the Alloway Township home the couple shared. The tapes were discovered when murder investigators searched the home.

Oleson submitted to DNA tests. In October 2007, he pleaded guilty to invasion of privacy in the other case and is on probation.

Prosecutors never revealed the DNA test results, but Oleson's attorney, James Leonard, said, "What they're not saying speaks volumes."

"In our opinion, the DNA exonerates him," Leonard said, although he doesn't expect prosecutors to publicly clear his client. "The problem is if they do that, the next question would be, 'OK, who do you move on to?' That's where they draw a blank."

Leonard, of Atlantic City, said investigators "never got out of the gate on this" and still don't know where the murders took place. He said they might have lost valuable time focusing on Oleson.

"In my opinion, the case is stone cold," he said.

A second suspect called Leonard and "confessed" to being the man some have dubbed the Black Horse Strangler. Leonard met the man at the Atlantic County jail, where he was held in another case, and recorded their conversation.

Pamela Covelli, an admitted prostitute, identified the man as a "suspicious" client with whom she and Raffo had "partied" three days before Raffo's body was found.

But during a hearing on Oleson's case, a judge said investigators had rejected the other man's admission of guilt.

Another self-described Atlantic City prostitute, Denise Hill, said she had contacted investigators about a year ago concerning a third man, a john from Florida who hinted that he was the killer.

Hill said the man had sent her greeting cards in which he called himself "Riverman," an apparent reference to the Seattle area's Green River Killer, who was found guilty of slaying 48 women.

"He's come back to Atlantic City a few times over the past two years," Hill said last week. "One time he grabbed my face and told me he cared for me and would never do anything to hurt me, but that those other four girls weren't so lucky."

When she contacted investigators, Hill said, they seemed "totally not interested."

"If this guy is going to be caught, it's going to come from help from the girls on the street," Hill said. "We all still remember those girls. Two of them were my friends."

Atlantic County Prosecutor Theodore Housel told the Associated Press in June that dozens of law enforcement agencies had worked more than 175,000 hours on the case.

Housel has come as close as any official to calling the crimes the work of a serial killer.

"They were four young ladies in close proximity to each other," he said. "The idea that there might be four people who had done the exact same thing is not logical."

Joseph Pollini, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired lieutenant on the New York City police cold-case squad, said the case could still be solved.

"It just depends on how tenacious the people involved are . . . and how many resources they want to put into it," said Pollini, who as an officer helped solve murders as old as 30 years.

Though logic may suggest that cases get more difficult to solve as they age, he said reluctant witnesses could become more willing to talk. Police need to keep up the pressure, he said.

"Maybe there's a prostitute out there that knows what happened and is just tight-lipped," he said.

There have been no similar murders in Atlantic County since the bodies were discovered. Vernon Geberth, a former New York City police detective who writes forensics texts, said long hiatuses had once led officials to assume killers were dead or in jail.

"Then along came the BTK killer, and it fooled everybody," Geberth said. The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, committed 10 murders in Kansas between 1974 and 1991, with up to eight years between them.

The Atlantic County murderer may have moved, Geberth said, but "the truth of the matter is I don't think anybody can give you a logical explanation" for why the killings stopped.

The Prosecutor's Office said information from the case had been entered into the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program database of violent crimes. If the killer strikes elsewhere, police can use the database to note similarities.

Street prostitutes working to support an addiction may be "easy victims" because of their lifestyle, said Jim Hutchins, a retired Atlantic City vice squad captain.

Among heavy users, he said, if someone goes missing for a couple of days, no one takes notice. "The shame was that they were normal girls. Then drugs got them and they got killed."

For their survivors, painful reality may only recently have set in, said Jon'a Meyer, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers University-Camden.

"It's very common for families and friends who were forthcoming when the incident happened to want to fade into the background. . . . They'll move, change phone numbers just to avoid the spotlight," she said.

"It's a coping mechanism that allows them and their loved one not to be re-victimized over and over," she said. "These were people who were once, and still are, loved by their families."

Auslander, Raffo's husband, was a high-profile advocate for finding the murderer, but he soon retreated to Florida and now shuns reporters. He spoke briefly last Friday in the hope that remembering the victims might draw attention to the case.

"I know there is somebody out there who must know something, and they've been letting sleeping dogs lie," said Auslander, 44.

He said he had heard nothing from investigators or the other victims' families. "I understand," he said, "but it's still not very comforting."

The four women took different roads to Atlantic City. Dilts fled poverty, leaving her 14-month-old son in the southwest Pennsylvania town of Black Lick after a run of bad luck.

Roberts, also a new mother, came from Bear, Del., to be an exotic dancer. When her drug habit left her so emaciated that clubs wouldn't hire her, she turned to prostitution.

Breidor, who had a 9-year-old daughter, went to Pennsylvania State University and dreamed of a law career. She grew up in affluent Huntingdon Valley and spent childhood summers in Margate.

She worked in the family's Boardwalk business selling trinkets to tourists, but began abusing prescription medications in the late 1980s. When Breidor moved on to hard-core drugs, her life fell apart. She became a prostitute to support her $300-a-day habit, relatives said.

Raffo's downfall may have been the most dramatic. Her sister, Maria Santos, has said the married mother of two was a "Martha Stewart" type and PTA mom until she had an affair with a student at a culinary school where she took classes. The man introduced her to crack cocaine.

Within three years, Raffo gave up custody of her children, left her husband, and worked as a waitress before drifting to Atlantic City and turning to prostitution to feed her drug habit.

Two years after Raffo's death, Miguel Santos said his wife was still dealing with the loss and would not take a reporter's calls. Raffo's father, Bob, of Brooklyn, N.Y., declined to comment on the murders.

Friends and family of Dilts, Roberts and Breidor also declined interview requests.

"She just doesn't want to talk about it anymore," Miguel Santos said of his wife, Maria. "She can't."


Contact staff writer Jacqueline

L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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